Archive for March 2nd, 2023

Van Gogh/ To Dare

Prisoners' Round (after Gustave Dore) 1890- Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh- Prisoners’ Round (after Gustave Dore) 1890

If one wants to be active, one must not be afraid of going wrong, one must not be afraid of making mistakes now and then. Many people think that they will become good just by doing no harm — but that’s a lie…. That way lies stagnation, mediocrity.

–Vincent van Gogh, The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh to His Brother, 1872-1886 

I can only imagine that so much worthwhile art has not been produced because the people who had the capacity to create it were simply afraid. They didn’t want to venture outside their comfort zone or push themselves. They didn’t want to make a mistake, didn’t want to fail. They didn’t want to disappoint or offend others.

They wanted to remain safe. Doing no harm, as Van Gogh put it in a letter to his brother in late 1884.

He then warns: That way lies stagnation, mediocrity.

He’s right, of course.

It’s a constant fight to let go of the safety lines we build for ourselves. It’s like one is a trapeze artist and is deathly afraid to let go of the swinging bar so that they might soar and glide gracefully through the air to the next bar. So, they hang where they are and continue to swing back and forth until, at last, they lose all momentum. They come to a halt and are left just hanging there with nowhere to go but down.

That’s mediocrity.

Myself? Been there, done that. I guess that’s why I try to venture out regularly with new types of work, like the recent Ring of Fire or the Multitudes or Outlaws series of past years. They are my way of letting go of the bar and attempting to fly through the air.

Sometimes I make it to that next bar. Sometimes I don’t quite get there.

But when I fail, I only fall to the net below. I can get back up with only my ego bruised a bit. I may not be quite as eager to make the next leap but with reminders like this from Van Gogh, I know that sooner or later I will let go and try to fly again.

That same fear is often present when moving on to a new piece of work. All those fears come rushing back as you face putting that first mark on that blank canvas. I am looking right now at three large, fully prepped canvases who have been intimidating me for months. I have been terrified of even getting near them with a brush filled with paint for all the reasons above.

But I know that the answer is to just take a deep breath and let go, try to fly to that next bar.

Just make that first  mark– any mark– and let it tell me what to do and where to go with it. Trust that I have the ability make it across and set aside any concerns about what might come or if it will be good enough.

Just dare to make the leap and let instinct carry me.

Van Gogh knew this and wrote about it in the same letter, saying in the next paragraphs following the one shown at the top:

Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring at you like some imbecile. You don’t know how paralysing that is, that stare of a blank canvas, which says to the painter: you can’t do a thing.

The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerises some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of “you can’t” once and for all.

This attitude of letting go of the bar (along with all the fears that are also holding onto it) and just soaring ahead without trying to remain safe might be the most important thing we learn from Van Gogh It’s a good reminder for any artist in any medium– and maybe for any human being.

Here’s a song that a little different for this blog with a slightly different circus analogy but with a message similar to today’s post. Plus, the song and video are energetic and a lot of fun. A good way to kick off the day. This is Janelle Monáe and Tightrope.

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